Here are five storylines I look forward to following during the ACC this season.
What I can’t wait to see:
Will North Carolina State live up to the hype?
For the past nine seasons, the conference title has been won by North Carolina or Duke. But this year NC State is the heavy favorite. The Wolfpack are the logical pick thanks to the return of players such as C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, and the addition of highly touted newcomers like Rodney Purvis. It also helps that Duke and North Carolina each lost most of their key players. Still, let’s not forget that this is a team that finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the ACC last season with a 9-7 record. Mark Gottfried’s squad went on a nice run in the NCAA tournament and almost upset Kansas in the Sweet 16. Is that the Wolfpack team we’ll see this season? Or will we see the squad that was marginal for most of 2011-12? My guess is the former.
How quickly will Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon adapt to the college game?
The Blue Devils lost guard and leading scorer Austin Rivers to the NBA draft, and Andre Dawkins will redshirt this season. Duke still has Seth Curry -- and it’s confident that sophomore Quinn Cook will take a big leap. Still, the backcourt is thin. As the 12th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2012 by ESPN.com, the 6-foot-4 Sulaimon is skilled enough to get on the court immediately and be a major factor for the Blue Devils. But it takes things other than skill to play for Mike Krzyzewski. How well will Sulaimon defend? How quickly will he pick up Duke’s system? How good a teammate will he be? Thus far the reports out of Durham have been positive.
Can Dez Wells play for Maryland?
Wells is practicing with Terps, but is awaiting a waiver that would allow him to play immediately after transferring during the summer from Xavier, where he was dismissed for a violation of the student code of conduct. Head coach Mark Turgeon is crossing his fingers that the waiver is granted, because the addition of Wells would greatly enhance Maryland’s chances of making the NCAA tournament after a two-year hiatus. Wells averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds for Xavier last season.
North Carolina will likely take a step back -- but will it be a big one?
The Tar Heels won the NCAA title in 2009 and then lost Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and others to the NBA. The following year they went 20-17 overall and 5-11 in the ACC. Will North Carolina -- which was one of the top two teams in country last season until Kendall Marshall got hurt -- take a similar slide this season after losing Marshall, John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes? The guess here is no. North Carolina might not be as strong as it was in 2011-12, but it still has a roster stacked with talent. James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock are NBA-caliber players. Dexter Strickland is an experienced guard, and standout recruit Marcus Paige should have a quick impact. The Tar Heels shouldn’t finish any lower than third in the ACC.
Who is the fourth-best team?
Let’s assume North Carolina State, Duke and North Carolina -- and not necessarily in that order -- will occupy the top three slots. Who comes next? Maryland and Miami certainly have to be considered. Nick Faust, James Padgett, Pe'Shon Howard and Alex Len all return for the Terps, who have added a top-flight recruit in 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward Shaquille Cleare. Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji are back for Miami. The coaches of both teams (Turgeon at Maryland and Jim Larranaga at Miami) are in their second season, which means each program should take significant strides. Still, I think the “next best” team outside of the top three will be Florida State. Not only that, but come February, I wouldn’t be shocked if Leonard Hamilton’s squad was in the mix for the ACC title. Year after year, the Seminoles lose good players. And year after year, Hamilton finds a way to keep his team relevant. Not many squads in the country defend as well as Florida State, which returns standout guard Michael Snaer.